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YouTube / MrScall60

No Shots! No Shots! How to Get a Shot Without a Needle

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YouTube / MrScall60

Let's face it: nobody likes getting shots. The main pain point is the needle—it's scary, it's pointy, and people are afraid of it (I'll admit, I'm no fan of needles myself). But there is another way! "Needle-free" injection technology allows many shots to go in with no needle at all. Here's how it works, and some video of needle-free tech in action...including in a Batman movie.

Kids Getting Shots Without Crying

We've all been around kids when it's time to get a shot—it's no fun. There's wailing, there's bargaining, and there's a futile attempt to make it fun by applying a cartoon-character bandaid at the end. But here's a video that blew my mind: here are kids in Cambodia receiving vaccinations from a needle-free device called the PharmaJet Stratis. And they are not freaking out in the slightest. The first two kids clearly know what shots are and aren't happy about them—until they get the shot, and then actually smile. Check this out:

How the Technology Works

There are various kinds of needle-free injectors out there and in development, but let's talk first about the Stratis device shown above, which is being advanced by PharmaJet in collaboration with PATH, a global health nonprofit organization based in Seattle. I've held the Stratis, and it feels like a medium-sized flashlight. A small-tipped disposable syringe containing the injectable vaccine (or other injectable pharmaceutical) is inserted by a health worker into the top end of the handheld injector. The injector is "powered" by an inner spring, which is preset to a specific level of compression by the manufacturer during production. The level setting depends on the type of disposable-syringe jet injector and the desired pressure and depth of delivery (for example, subcutaneous or intramuscular). In other words, some injections just need to get beneath the skin, others need to go deeper.

Photo courtesy of PATH/Patrick McKern

In the Stratis design, the spring is "charged" just by putting the device in its "Reset Station," a simple mechanical case. The Reset Station compresses the spring to the proper amount by pushing metal bars of varying lengths against it. There's no electricity involved. Once the device is charged, you literally just press a button to deliver the injection.

After pressing the button, the vaccine is delivered through a tiny opening in the tip of the syringe, roughly the width of a human hair. The pressure from the spring creates a "liquid needle" that pushes fluid through the skin, much like a regular needle minus the metal. Then the tip automatically disables, preventing reuse. This is actually a special feature because one big problem with a conventional needle and syringe is reuse and cross-contamination, which increase the risk of disease transmission between patients. By comparison, jet injector syringe tips eliminate the chance for reuse. Also, because there's no needle, there is no risk of accidental needle-stick injury for people giving the injections or disposing of sharps waste.

The Stratis was pre-qualified by the World Health Organization (WHO) this year, which means it can be purchased and used by the WHO, GAVI Alliance, and UNICEF for mass immunization efforts.

Needle-free injection has actually been around since the 1940s. If you were in the U.S. military before 1997, you probably got some shots with a multi-use nozzle jet injector, an earlier form of the technology that lacked the anti-cross-contamination features of today’s disposable-syringe jet injectors. A fictional version of the needle-free technology was also featured on Star Trek, where we know it as a hypospray.

Even Batman Uses Needle-Free Tech

Spoiler alert: if you haven't seen Batman Begins yet, this will spoil a plot point for you!

In the movie, the Scarecrow releases a toxin into Gotham's water supply. Batman has an antidote, which he delivers using a real-world technology. Specifically, Batman employs the needle-free Biojector 2000 system (yes, that's its real name), painted black and dressed up to look more Batman-ish.

The system includes a handheld delivery device, needle-free syringes containing the antidote (or vaccine, or what-have-you), and a CO2 cartridge to power the injection. In the video below, you see the syringes at 0:13, and the handheld injector near the end (partly out of frame), lying next to two syringes. This would actually be a practical way to deliver mass vaccinations to a city, while avoiding the issues of cross-contamination and needle sticks. Chalk one up for realism in comic book movies!

Even More Needle-Free Tech!

Jet injectors aren't the only way to get vaccines and similar medications into the human body—thermoresponsive gels and fast-dissolving tablets for sublingual (under the tongue) delivery are other promising needle-free technologies in the works, plus there are nasal sprays already in use (FluMist, anyone?).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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